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No More Apathy, Please!

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I am a beach person. You know how some people are categorised according to what they feel passionate about, whether they are classified as a dog person or a cat person, a beach person or a mountain person. I’m guilty of being one who loves doing nothing else but lazing around half naked on a warm white sandy beach under the hot sun, with gallons of coconut oil smeared on my skin, sufficient oil in fact to cook an egg sunny side up. A perfect glistening beached whale.

After months of hard work in a high-pressure city like Jakarta, nothing is better than escaping for a few relaxing days to an unspoiled beach on Lombok, the Great Barrier Reef or simply the furthest island in the Thousand Islands. Because, believe it or nor, despite their close proximity to the heavily polluted city of Jakarta, most of the islands within the Thousand Islands are not inhabited by mutant creatures.

The Java Sea currents somehow manage to block the black traces of Jakarta’s waste from reaching the furthest islands. This phenomenon actually can be easily witnessed from inside a plane, just before landing at Soekarno-Hatta Airport – the murky waste flowing out from Jakarta’s water gates gradually mixes with the bluish seawater. Then, just like a maestro’s painting, the visible pollutants seem to fade and blend away while slowly being absorbed by the unknown deep. What am I doing, why am I trying to describe Jakarta’s crap to make it sound so bloody romantic?

Knowing that the beach has been such a happy part of my life that always keeps my sanity in check - I was shocked reading a headline written in a newspaper last February. The headline said that Pabelokan Island, one of the beautiful Thousand Islands, had been heavily polluted with floating crude oil. The fishermen lost their jobs and they couldn’t harvest any sane fish from the nearby sea anymore. The coral around the island had suffocated. The fish either died or swam away to cleaner water. And the most worrying of all, the pollution had threatened to spread around the nearby resort islands. Up until today, this case has still not yet been solved. It is still not clear who’s responsible – the nearby oil rigs or leaks from passing oil tankers. The big and powerful as well as the environmental institutions and NGOs are still working hard to find the culprit.

A few weeks later, speaking to the chairman of Friends of the Earth, a local environmental NGO, I was astounded to learn that the heavy pollution had been discovered and reported since September 2003. Why was it only mentioned in the newspaper in February 2004? Why did nobody know anything about it, except the environmental community, residents of the polluted islands and the polluter himself? Hey, I smelled something fishy.

When I asked the chairman why most Jakartans didn’t react to this problem, he just shrugged and said one word – apathy. He said that he is used to the cold shoulder attitude. Our own society couldn’t care less, while NGOs from the western countries are usually the ones making so much fuss. From the information I then gathered, to make a long story short, basically Indonesia and especially Jakarta is full of apathetic people. They do not give a darn if their island is even sinking further below sea level, as long as they are not directly affected and their houses are safe and warm food is prepared on their dining tables every night. All right, perhaps a few dozen people will give a yelp. Groups will stage a noisy demonstration on the busiest street in the city’s business district during lunch time; but then as soon as the sun goes down, they will likely go back to their own private business and forget what they said in the morning. And the issue dies down by itself, forgotten, until a similar problem arises again in the too near future.

A good example is the annual flood in Jakarta. When it happens, everybody who lives in this city and directly suffers from the disaster, protests in chorus: “Why? How? Who’s to blame? Sue the governor! We can’t go on living like this! Traffic jams for 5 hours, imagine! My BMW is f-cked because of the flood! My new shoes are soaking wet!” Whatever. But just wait for a couple of days, the hullabaloo will eventually disappear, people’s lives go on as usual, until, of course, the arrival of the next year’s wet season, then they will yell the same protests again. Hey, feel that Deja Vu in the air? The same thing happens every year, you moron.

Do Jakartans tolerate and easily accept disasters as a part of their daily lives? Do they know that some of the disasters and repercussions are created or triggered by apathy and that only we can stop it from continuing? Is it true that the polite, smiling Indonesians – who are well-known by their own propaganda as fond of the traditional teamwork of ‘gotong royong’, and communicating to find solutions to problems by ‘musyawarah untuk mufakat’ – are actually careless about their country’s dilemma unless of course the problem exists at their own doorstep?

How can we make these apathetic Jakartans understand that the pollution in the Thousand Islands is mainly a problem we should face and fix, not international environmental extremists? That instead of blaming other people, we can stop the flood and the traffic jams with our own actions? By not throwing crap in the rivers, by not covering every inch of our houseyard with concrete? By not stopping under a flyover to find some cover from the heavy downpour? By playing less golf, as in not further encouraging more businessmen to chop down more trees to build bunkers and artificial lakes to catch the ball of the losers?

I guess it’s time that we stop this ‘turning a blind eye’ attitude which sadly has become a part of Indonesian culture, before we become completely blind and drowned. Problems will not go away when they are ignored. The problems will only hide and grow bigger. When they grow too big to handle, what can we do? So guys, for the time being, let’s just stuff the smile and polite attitude, roll up our sleeves and fix the problems. Let’s let the greeny extremists with their little ponytails and flowery shirts know that we are not an apathetic nation. But wait, I’ll relax at my favourite beach for a couple of days first.

First published in the Jakarta Post on Sunday, 16 May 2004

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

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